It’s impossible not to be disoriented by the level of contradiction in even the most expert/authoritative of sources’ messages: Wear a mask. Don’t wear masks. Go outside for walks alone. Never go outside. You’re not infectious without symptoms. The asymptomatic are the most likely to spread the disease. The main symptoms of COVID-19 are respiratory. Actually, many infected individuals never develop respiratory symptoms, or only develop them in very late stages. The virus is airborne. The virus is only transmitted through droplets. You don’t need to worry about being infected by food. You should always disinfect food containers. If you follow this set of rules, you are being responsible – no, actually, if you follow them, you are endangering yourself and others.
I am thinking about children who are constantly given contradictory statements by their parents – it’s confusing, it damages their sense of reality, it makes it hard to trust themselves and others. In the long-term, their attachment developmentally impacted, creating patterns of cognition, emotion, and behavior that are seen as erratic and challenging by others. Long-term exposure to contradictory messaging on topics such as safety, danger, and relationships creates a pathological sense of shame in children who grow up under such conditions – shame that lasts into adulthood.
It isn’t necessarily that public health authorities and experts are doing anything wrong in this regard (though certainly I hold room in my heart for critiques of how this has been handled). But the truth is, we simply do not know very much about this virus or the extent of its effects on human populations. So, naturally, there is disagreement and change in the messages we are receiving. This is understandable. Yet on an embodied, somatic level, it is distressing – even beyond the fact that there is danger, it seems impossible to tell where exactly the danger is coming from. We are learning that we cannot trust our leaders (some of us never trusted them to begin with). We are learning that we cannot trust our senses.
So how can we survive this constantly shifting narrative with our integrity intact? What can we orient to in a time of extreme disorientation? What do we know to be true?
I am returning, over and over, to the knowledge that things are transient. That Change is the only lasting god, as Black feminist sci-fi prophetess Octavia Butler explores in her Parable of the Talents series. Martial arts star Bruce Lee embodied awareness of this reality in his philosophy, which has been echoed in the slogans of revolutionary Hong Kong protesters: “Be like water.” The virus is attacking from outside, inside, through touch, through air. All we can do is keep shifting in response. And we must know, too, that water doesn’t follow a perfect, ordered path. It leaks. It spills. It’s messy – like the human body, like life. We can’t be perfect. We can’t even understanding everything perfectly. But we can do our best. We can keep moving toward the preservation of life, even when life isn’t guaranteed.
Walking on the wild side – living in the edge of safety while also growing toward life – for me used to be going out on adventures. Seeking new kinds of intimacy. Pushing the limits of social boundaries while staying true to the principles of consent, kindness, dignity. I did not expect to have to negotiate whether to wash my vegetables with or without soup as a major life/death somatic inquiry – but here we are. My life has changed, so I have to change, like it or not.
We can orient, too, to the knowledge of who we are: Our values. Our loved ones. The pleasures we can still access. The people we want to be. Psychologists theorize that the way to recover from abusive childhoods is to develop a trustworthy internal working model of attachment. We have to find the trustworthiness in ourselves in order to withstand the untrustworthiness of the outside world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something huge: I can start just by touching the floor of my apartment with my foot. The floor is still here (for now). The floor is still the floor. I can trust this. I can grow this small grain of trust into something bigger inside me, a core that can last and guide me through the shifting sands of this time we are living in.
And that will have to be enough.